Photo by EU Council / Pool/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
Artillery Row

Europe’s foreign policy muddle

What foreign policy does the EU want, and does it even want one

In a 2020 speech, President Macron stated that his nation’s “independent decision-making is fully compatible with our unwavering solidarity with our European partners” — laying bare an unacknowledged tension at the heart of EU foreign policy.

In theory, through the pooling of sovereignty in the bloc, each EU member stands to benefit from its collective clout on the global stage. In reality, its countries’ reluctance to subsume their national interests to an EU-wide policy undermines the group’s global stature. Blithe avoidance of this inconvenient reality condemns the EU to geopolitical irrelevance.

Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, rarely has a solution emerged without an outside power stepping in: the US drove the peace deals of Balkan wars, Turkey has absorbed the millions of refugees that EU governments feared their electorates would punish them for if admitted, and member states’ woeful under-investment in their own national defence means they rely upon American firepower, via NATO, to deter any would be aggressors.

The history of under-delivery runs counter to European ambitions. With the dissolution of the unipolar moment and the return of history in geopolitics, the clamour for a more muscular EU foreign policy has grown louder. French President Macron has pushed the concept of strategic autonomy; German chancellor Scholz has called for a more geopolitical EU.

However, moving in step with these hopes is the fracturing of intra-European unity. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has deepened divides between the dovish approach favoured in Western EU members contrasted against the hawkishness of those in the East. The latter had long warned of Russian revanchism. That was met with an inability to fathom a full scale war breaking out on the continent in Western capitals.

France has pursued its own diametrically opposed interests in Libya

Following the post-Crimea 2014 truce, the East stressed premature rapprochement would embolden the Kremlin’s imperial proclivities. The West dismissed such concerns and instead willingly signed up to further EU energy dependence on the Kremlin, pursuing a second gas pipeline, Nord Stream 2, from Russia to Northern Germany. To compound its failure in foresight, the West has since proved slow to shore up Ukrainian defences. The East has become the largest contributor in relative terms to GDP.

“Ironically, the French drive for strategic autonomy (non-reliance on the US) rooted in EU solidarity risks further fracturing the bloc,” says Mat Whatley, the former head of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe in Donetsk. “Since Western Europe failed to comprehend the threat posed by Russia, Central and Eastern European nations do not trust the EU to protect their security. Instead, their already fervent Atlanticism has intensified. Calls to abandon it go down like a cup of cold sick.”

Differing stances on Ukraine are only one facet of a stubborn East–West fault line. The embrace of former Soviet states in the halcyon 2000s has not made them more like the West. Contrary to misplaced assumptions, cultural and political division have not been eroded by the sea of the universalist liberal project. Instead, such divisions have become more pronounced as those nations grew in economic strength and strategic importance. Poland is now the sixth largest economy in the bloc. When Biden visited Ukraine in March 2023, Warsaw was the only EU capital where he made an additional stop.

Against this backdrop, policy formation has become sclerotic. This was acknowledged last year when Scholz stated that national vetoes should be dropped in favour of majority votes in foreign policy. Yet this misses the point. Were a policy possible, it must not be undermined by member states. Without addressing the tension between national and supranational interests, a focused and strategic EU foreign policy will exist only in rhetoric. Recent history already reveals a pattern of failure across the crescent of Europe’s near abroad.

A lack of coherent policy in Libya is perhaps the most striking. The North African nation, a short boat ride from Europe’s southern shores, has been the epicentre of the migrant crisis that has caused deep rifts within both the EU and its member states. Given the scale and breadth of the problem, it should have galvanised a unified response. Instead, EU vacillation has helped prolonged the conflict, entrenching the migrant trafficking networks.

Since the French-driven NATO bombing campaign to topple dictator Gadaffi in 2011, Libya has descended into factional warfare. Over a decade later, the country is roughly divided between the U.N.-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) in the West and the military warlord General Haftar in the oil-rich Eastern region.

The EU supports the former. France has pursued its own diametrically opposed interests, however, covertly arming and training the warlord’s forces, whilst paying lip service to the UN-mediated peace process. Believing that Heftar is better able to address the Islamist terrorism that Macron sees engulfing the Sahel and reverberating back into France, the French paired a desire for a firm hand with a naivety of the complexities involved. As Tarek Megerisi, researcher at the European Council on Foreign Relations, has stated, “Macron was misadvised into thinking that Libya could be a quick win for his charisma.”

The French president’s backing of Haftar led to his march on Tripoli in 2019, which ultimately ended in a swift retreat the following year. A resolution is now a remote possibility. The two sides are more dug in than ever. Militias have proliferated. Many are funded through migrant smuggling.

The US had used its diplomatic heft to bring the parties to the table

EU foreign policy has been restricted to mere mitigation: handing money to Libyan border authorities to stop the boats rather than investing in programmes that might stabilise the country. The EU has also funded those patrolling the borders on the route to Libya, shortsightedly funnelling resources to warlords like Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, better known as Hemeti, in Sudan. The former head of the Janjaweed militias is responsible for a catalogue of atrocities in Darfur. He launched a civil war earlier this year, which exacerbated migratory flows toward Libya.

In Libya itself, France’s position has also been driven by commercial considerations. Total Oil, the large French conglomerate, had energy interests in Libya that Haftar seemed best placed to expand. In addition, the internationalisation of the Libyan civil war has seen a Saudi, Emirati and Egyptian coalition intervene on behalf of Haftar against the GNA. They are also large buyers of French arms and equipment, whilst Paris retains a military airbase in the UAE.

France’s domestic, rather than commercial, considerations have undermined another EU foreign policy priority: mediating a conclusion to the near thirty-year dispute between Turkey-backed Azerbaijan and Russian-backed Armenia in the South Caucasus. The conflict broke out in the 1990s over Nagorno-Karabakh — a region recognised as Azerbaijan’s sovereign territory, but with a majority ethnic Armenian population. In 1994, the conflict froze over with Armenia left occupying a near fifth of its neighbours’ lands. It heated up again in 2020, with Azerbaijan regaining most of its territory before a ceasefire was agreed.

Charles Michel, president of the European Council, had staked a strictly neutral position when bringing the two sides together. In conjunction with a US-led mediation stream, efforts had been gaining traction. French interloping on behalf of Armenia has undermined the EU’s role as an honest broker, however, preventing it from shaping a deal in its favour in a region that is of heightened strategic significance in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The EU fails to bring reconciliation to yet another territorial dispute

The South Caucasus has become critical to European efforts to diversify away from Russian energy. Following the outbreak of the Ukrainian war, the EU signed an agreement with gas-rich Azerbaijan to double supplies to Europe.

A durable peace deal also offers the chance to expel Russia from its near abroad. It has been the traditional power broker in the region to its south since the collapse of the USSR. The frozen conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia has facilitated its hold: Armenia was militarily reliant on Moscow. Consequently, Azerbaijan thought any resolution would need to be greenlit by those sitting in the Kremlin. Moscow’s leverage only increased when it negotiated the ceasefire to the 2020 conflict that stationed 2,000 of its soldiers in the region as peacekeepers. A durable peace settlement would remove the justification for their presence.

Armenia has sought to break free from its traditional ally Russia in the wake of the Ukraine War — which would serve to further isolate the Kremlin pariah state. Its chronic military dependency on Moscow blocks that path in the absence of a peace deal with Azerbaijan, however. Instead, Armenia has been coerced into helping Moscow evade Western sanctions by offering it a backdoor to import dual-use technologies such as microchips through its borders.

Cognisant of the benefits, and with Russia bogged down in Ukraine, Michel sensed an opportunity to push through a deal. In the two-track diplomacy with the US, progress was clear: the Armenian Prime Minister has made statements announcing he would recognise Azerbaijan sovereignty over Nagorno Karabakh which was for decades the greatest obstacle to resolution.

Yet despite mistrust in France as a credible mediator, Macron has insisted on his inclusion in the talks. France has a large Armenian diaspora. The French President has courted their affections, and they are in turn electorally supportive of him. Throughout the conflict he has made clear France’s position backing Armenia. To make things worse, in the middle of negotiations, the French parliament passed a resolution calling for sanctions against Azerbaijan over the dispute. Though non-binding and distinct from the executive, all of Macron’s party backed the motion. It would be difficult for Baku to not read it as the “French” position.

For these reasons, Macron should have left the mediation to Michel to ensure a neutral appearance in the EU-format. Instead he continued to insert himself in negotiations that Michel had organised. He then blamed Azerbaijan for launching a “terrible war” in the French media, despite international law permitting the use of force in defence of sovereign territory. In response, Azerbaijan pulled out of the talks, rejecting French involvement.

After this hiccup, and with precious time lost, the format has been rehabilitated — though much diminished and mistrusted. Increasingly, it falls to the Americans to do the heavy lifting. Once again, diplomacy in Washington means securing Brussel’s geostrategic aims of a peace deal that safeguards European energy security and weakens Russia in its backyard. So much for strategic autonomy.

Closer to home, the EU fails to bring reconciliation to yet another territorial dispute. As it is a mere 120 km from its borders, the EU should unquestionably be the main geopolitical power in resolving the Serbian–Kosovo dispute. Despite decades having passed since the Balkan Wars that ended in NATO intervention, the region remains vulnerable to instability. In May, Belgrade sent troops to its southern border with Kosovo following clashes between police and the statelet’s ethnic Serb minority. There were fears in EU capitals that Serbia would invade, leading to a repeat of the 1998–99 Kosovo War.

Brussels’ top geostrategic aim is the normalisation of relations between, and mutual recognition of, Kosovo and Serbia. The two sides have been stuck in a frozen conflict since 2008, when Kosovo unilaterally declared its independence from Serbia.

15 years of EU mediation has produced little progress because it lacks a coherent and consistent position. Members range from the five countries that refuse to recognise independence (Spain, Slovakia, Cyprus, Romania and Greece) to those that believe Serbia should simply accept Kosovo’s independence with little concession from Pristina (most evident in Germany’s position). The commission has attempted to walk a middle line that can only be read as ambiguous. Meanwhile, members are left free to air their own stances in public, sending further mixed messages to Belgrade and Pristina as to the overarching EU position.

The EU used to have a stick to coax Belgrade into recognition: both nations must recognise the other as a precondition to EU-membership. However, with EU enlargement fatigue — most recently demonstrated in Macron blocking North Macedonian and Albanian accession — this now seems a distant prospect in Belgrade regardless of a Kosovo resolution. The EU’s ineffectual mediation also strengthens Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic’s autocratic rule. Painting the ineffectual mediation efforts as a ploy to thwart Serbia’s path to the EU, he has steadily increased his concentration of power at home. At the same time, Russian and Chinese influence has grown as the prospect of EU membership fades.

Against the odds, the shape of a deal was on the table in 2020. Unsurprisingly, it did not come from within the European mechanism: the US had used its diplomatic heft to bring the parties to the table. It had applied economic pressure on Kosovo to drop the 100 per cent tax that had been placed on Serbia imports, which were a major roadblock in talks. The contrast with European muscle was stark: it was under the stasis of EU-led talks that the levy was introduced in the first place in 2018.

The Americans had suggested negotiating on a new principle: a land swap where the two sides would redraw their borders along ethnic lines by transferring the Serb-majority part of northern Kosovo to Serbia in exchange for an Albanian-majority portion of southern Serbia to Kosovo.

The Europeans would not support this deal. Germany led the opposition, despite some in the EU warming to the plan, on the premise that redrawing borders might set a precedent for instability in the region. This was a failure to deal with the consequences of the past, in which Germany and others had already set such a precedent when it recognised Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence in 2008. More significantly, the EU failed to appreciate that the most difficult hurdle had been cleared for any resolution to succeed: both Vucic and his then-counterpart, Kosovar leader Hacim Thaçi, appeared ready to do a deal on this basis.

With a change in the US administration, responsibility for mediation was handed back to the EU. The deal died. In the end, Brussels failed to get what it needed: the two sides to recognise one another’s territorial integrity. The conflict remains unresolved. A potential source of instability lurks in the EU’s backyard, which shows that the EU halfway house on foreign policy is not working and needs to change.

There are two possible ways forward. Contra Scholz, majority voting will not solve the problem. It may speed the process of forming foreign policy and make it less at the mercy of out-holders. It is still liable to be an accumulation of national interests, though, rather than a coherent EU-wide strategy.

Policy must instead be formed outside the states and in the commission. Only then can it have the unity and coherence of a true foreign policy. It would finally answer the question — who speaks for Europe? In any situation, outside parties are never sure whether it is the organs of the institution or the leaders of its most powerful states.

With few exceptions, the prime ministers and presidents sitting in the European Council made their career in domestic politics, and they have only limited experience in foreign policy. They often take a short-term perspective and look at international events mainly through the prism of their national politics. This fragmented approach does not take the EU’s collective potential into account, and it sometimes results in a lack of ambition and excessive risk aversion.

However, ever closer union has never been popular amongst members such as the Netherlands, Denmark and Poland. It would face significant push back.

The EU’s other option is to forgo a unified foreign policy entirely. Members should instead be left to advocate their own positions. Whilst this may weaken the bloc’s collective power, in reality that has always been illusory. Removing EU envoys and foreign policy representatives from mediation and other foreign policy challenges could actually help curtail confusion in countries like Armenia, Azerbaijan, Kosovo, Libya and Serbia. Instead, ad-hoc formations of member states who share a common position could act as more credible actors to bring deals to resolution in a focused manner. Meanwhile, the EU could shore up its soft power in humanitarian outreach and peacekeeping missions.

Of course, this could breed disunity within the EU and make foreign policy an area of competition of leadership. Some outcomes may favour some more than others. Imperfect resolutions are often preferable to festering instability in Europe’s near abroad, though.

Both options have their drawbacks. Both would be difficult to implement. Either would be preferable to the ineffectual foreign policy that has notched up failure after failure.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover